Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Adds Master Builder to Resume

@DaleJr. may be most well known as NASCAR’s most popular driver, but the 40-year-old has another skill to add to his extensive racing resume, that of master builder.

Earnhardt Jr.’s latest home improvement project, inspired by the television show ‘Treehouse Masters’ on Animal Planet, is to build a functioning treehouse on his North Carolina property.

“Watching that TV show, I thought that was really cool,” he said Tuesday. “I wanted to build a tree house years and years ago. So, I finally got down to where after watching that show, I thought, man, I’ve got to do it. And wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t do it.”

Earnhardt Jr. discussed his new building project during media availability after losing to @JoeyLogano in a celebrity softball game pitting teams from Dover International Speedway (otherwise known as the Monster Mile) and Pocono Raceway at the Trenton Thunder baseball stadium.

Earnhardt Jr. advised the process of not only deciding on his new build but moving forward with the plans was not only easy but fairly cost effective as well.

“I bought the plans off his website for one hundred bucks,” he said. “It shows you how to build the hardware.”

The driver of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 race car also involved his XFINITY Series race team in his building project, admitting that he needed a few more helping hands.

“So, I got the race team to do all the hardware,” said Earnhardt Jr. “They build a lot of stuff for me besides race cars. That’s one perk, the only perk, to owning a race team. You can get them to build all kinds of crazy stuff.

“The rest of the time, they are just spending all your money.”

So, will NASCAR’s most popular driver be living in his new treehouse?

“I’m not going to live in it,” he said. “Just drink beer in it. I might have to sleep in it a few nights. It’s somewhere to hang out and unwind a little bit. It’s just something for fun.”

And with a laugh and a small aside, Earnhardt Jr. said he may even use it if he is in the doghouse after a disagreement with girlfriend Amy Reimann.

Earnhardt Jr. advised that the treehouse project is close to completion, but as with every new build there have been some delays in his project timeline.

“The start to finish time is probably eight months,” he stated. “The timing was kind of rough because of the winter and the weather and all that. It’s real close and we’ve been working on it a long time. I look forward to getting it finished.”

Earnhardt Jr. is certainly no stranger to building projects. In fact, prior to the treehouse initiative, he built an entire Old West town called Whiskey River on his property in North Carolina. The racecar driver was in fact inspired to do that project by Willie Nelson, who also built out a similar old time town on his own property.

“I thought it was a great idea, and I’m really into the Westerns,” Earnhardt said. “I’m into the Spaghetti Westerns and all the stuff (Clint) Eastwood did in the ’70s and ’60s. It seems like a fun, mysterious time.”

For the western town, however, Earnhardt Jr. had to draw up the plans himself, starting with the Silverado Saloon and then adding a hotel, a jail, post office, pharmacy, bank general store, church and barber shop.

He kept his town build authentic, recycling wood from a local mill. He also took great pains to ensure that all details were attended to, from a barber’s chair in the shop to medicine bottles in the pharmacy.

His favorite building, interestingly enough is not the bar but the jail, which he deemed “completely realistic.”

“We’ve had a lot of fun down here,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve had a lot of good times in this place. It means a lot for me to be able to show it off to people.”

There is no doubt that Earnhardt Jr. will be equally proud of his treehouse master building project on completion, just as he is with his western town. And he even may have some visitors who want to stay over, including up and coming driver Darrell @BubbaWallace, who played on Dale Junior’s Pocono softball team.

“My lease is up in September so will it be ready by then?” Wallace asked.

Earnhardt’s reply was “Sure, we got a lot of places. Come on down.”

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW MARY JO ON TWITTER: @maryjobuchanan

Categories
XFINITY

Sam Hornish Predicts Texas Turnaround

This weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, Sam Hornish Jr. will not only be behind the wheel of his regular Cup ride in the No. 9 Richard Petty Motorsports Ford but will also be doing double duty in the No. 98 Ford with Biagi-DenBeste in the XFINITY Series.

And when asked if he could gaze into his crystal ball for his predictions about the upcoming weekend, @SamHornish said he sees nothing but a Texas turnaround for himself and his team, which admittedly has been struggling so far this season.

“It’s not at all the start we wanted but we’ve got some good people around us,” Hornish said. “There have been a lot of things that have happened that we couldn’t do anything about. And we had one race where we got involved in an accident that was our fault because of a mistake made by somebody else.”

“It’s been tough. I feel like the days we’ve had good speed, something happens and the days we aren’t very good, we just haven’t figured out how to make it a little bit better. They always say that it can’t go on like this forever and I surely hope that is the case. But I also know that we need to keep working hard and do our best to be able to keep digging out of the hole that we’re in right now.

I’ve got a lot of faith in the people that are around me. I know that everybody is working hard. I feel like we’re all the doing the best we can, but we need a little bit more to get the results we deserve.”

Hornish definitely feels that doing double duty will be an advantage that can help him get that Texas turnaround.

“With the lack of testing this year and the fact that the Cup and XFINITY Series are on the same tires, sometimes having the opportunity to run the prior race gives you an advantage as far as what the tires are going to do, how the car is handling throughout the race, and what the tires like as far as air pressure and directions,” Hornish said. “A little bit of seat time is usually a really good thing. I feel like I’ve got a good opportunity on both sides, getting to run the 98 car and the 9 car.”

“The 98 car is a small team trying to figure out how to take the next steps. The owners want to go do this. They’re not looking to get rich. They’re just there because they love racing so that’s fun.

Having said that, we want to have good runs and make them feel like what they are doing is worthwhile and they are gaining something by doing it. I feel like we have had speed in the 98 car as well as on the Cup side. It’s just getting everything, including the race, put together to where we don’t have any issues or problems. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

“There are a lot of things to be gained by doing both races,” Hornish continued. “The Cup cars still have more power that the XFINITY cars, but the cars are more similar than what they have been for a very long time, that’s for sure.”

“I don’t know it’s one hundred percent translatable. That’s not quite there because there are enough differences as far as how the set ups are and what the rules are. But I feel that there are more similarities than not.

That’s why you see some of the good crew chiefs out on pit road during the XFINITY race looking at tires and talking to people to figure out what they can do to be better. Not only do you have the drivers doing it, but you also have the crew chiefs doing it as well.”

Hornish’s past history at Texas Motor Speedway also plays into his prediction of a Texas turnaround, especially since he has fifteen years of experience at that track between his NASCAR and IndyCar Series races.

“I’ve had a lot of good memories there in IndyCar, either winning races or celebrating championships, Hornish said. “That was also the last place that I won at on the IndyCar side. So, that was all really good. I also had some good runs there in the Nationwide Series.”

Yet while there are some great memories at Texas, there is one of Hornish’s worst memories as well, one from which he says he is continuing to use to learn and grow.

“My least favorite memory being there was getting hit in the left rear by David Reutimann in lap 3 which then pushed into Jimmie Johnson. I realized that even though it wasn’t my fault, I was part of it and took the bigger brunt of it. That was a frustrating day for me.”

But all in all, we don’t really learn a whole lot on the days you win races. You learn a whole lot about yourself, who you are and what you’re made of, by the days that things don’t work out well.

So, some of the worst days in your life are the times where there is the most to be learned. I take each one of those to see what I learned and what I can learn to move forward.”

And although Hornish is still learning his new team, crew chief Drew Blickensderfer and his RPM teammate Aric Almirola, he still feels confident that will all play into his ability to turn his season around at the upcoming double race weekend.

“I’ve had a really good time getting to know everybody on my team,” Hornish said. “I feel like Richard Petty Motorsports has taken a big step in the off-season, hanging our own bodies and the undertaking of the new shop. There are a lot of things taken into our own hands to do to go to the next level.

In a lot of ways, Aric (Almirola) has been able to maximize those things to his advantage so far and they’ve had a great start to the season. Even though we haven’t had the start that they have had, we know that there have been times where they have leaned on us as far as set-ups and certain days that they were able to take it and do even better than what we could.

That’s part of being teammates. You’re not always the guy that is leading the charge. You can work on having that relationship but at the end of the day, it’s about the team as a whole and figuring out how we can make everybody better.”

“I feel like Drew and I still have some things to get on the right page about,” Hornish continued. “It’s relatively early in our running together. We both understand we have work to do and we’re both willing to work hard for it. I feel like there is no reason that we won’t get there. We just have to keep digging.”

So just what does Sam Hornish Jr. predict if indeed he had his very own crystal ball for Texas?

“I feel like we have a great opportunity to go out there and have a real good run this week,” Hornish said. “I would say that I would be disappointed with anything worse than a 15th place finish.

For the mile and a halfs that we have run so far, we’ve had good qualifying. And for all the issues we had at Atlanta, to be able to come back and finish 21st after the adversity, those are the days that will make us better when we go to a place like Texas where we’re going to have a good solid weekend.”

“Obviously, I’d love to say we were going to go out there and win but I haven’t turned the first lap yet in practice. So, we’ll have to wait and see what that is and try to build from it.”

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Five Weeks In, Justin Allgaier Firing On All Cylinders

With a 12th place finish at Fontana, his career-best finish in the Sprint Cup Series, it is no wonder that Justin Allgaier feels that he and his No. 51 Brandt Chevrolet for HScott Motorsports are firing on all cylinders.

“It definitely was a good finish for us,” @J_Allgaier said. “As a driver and a race team, you always want to win races. That is the goal. But the theory always is that you have to crawl before you walk and walk before you can run. I feel like the end of last season, we made huge strides in getting our program better and this year, we fired off out of the gate and have gone further and above that.

“I’m just really proud of these guys and how we’ve been doing. And to go to a place like California where I haven’t had the best success in Cup and to get my career best finish is pretty awesome.”

Allgaier admitted that he and his crew chief had to play their cards right to take the checkered flag in the midst of the debris cautions, crazy restarts and two vs. four tires strategies.

“We got down to the end and strategy worked out perfectly for us,” Allgaier said. “Steve Addington (crew chief) made great pit calls all day. I believe we restarted 16th on the next to the last green-white-checker. I went to the outside on two tires and I knew there were cars on different strategies.

“The 2 car was behind us on four tires and I knew he was going to go through the middle. So, I went to the outside, which was lucky because the inside was bottled up. That put us eighth and if you’d have ever told me that I could have gone from 16th to eighth and missed a crash, I would have told you that you were crazy. I knew the last restart was going to be tough on two tires. Ultimately we just tried to hang on and got passed by a few guys on four. But that was a right decision for us and the end result was a good one. I would have loved a top-ten but I definitely think the top-12 for us was where we needed to be.”

While Allgaier acknowledged the team was headed in the right direction this year, he could not specifically pinpoint the magic that was propelling them forward on all cylinders.

“I wish I could tell you there was a certain something that had changed this year,” Allgaier said. “Last year we had fast cars but never got the finishes we deserved. This year, we have had some of the same, like in Daytona and Atlanta.

“I can look at all the races this year and say that we’ve been a lot better and the last two weeks we have finished off the weekend. Last year, we struggled with that and struggled with consistency. As an organization and a race team, that consistency is what we need.”

“Steve and I have had a great relationship this year,” Allgaier continued. “Last year we spent trying to get to know each other and understanding each other’s lingo and I feel like this year we are much more advanced as far as our relationship together.

“Momentum and communication is such a huge key in this sport. I feel like this year, we’re just expanding on both of those and doing a better job on both of those. That’s ultimately been what has been propelling us to where we need to be.”

There are two other changes that have Allgaier fired up and clicking on all cylinders, the new rules package and the ability to adjust the track bar from the cockpit.

“The one thing for me that the new rules package has done is taken away a lot of grip,” Allgaier said. “It has allowed us to really fight the race car and focus on your car driving well. I feel like that’s been better for me. Last year, the cars had so much grip and they were so fast that if your car was a little bit off, it was hard to make that up. This year, I feel like it’s not as much of a gap. That makes it nice when, as a driver, you feel like you can make a little bit more of a difference.”

“I actually just got the track bar at Phoenix and I love it,” Allgaier continued. “We had been waiting on some parts and pieces to get it in our cars. When I got it at Phoenix, I was like a kid in a candy store. I just had to move it even though our car was really good.

This weekend at California, it was a huge help throughout the race, from sticker tires to long runs. I grew up racing open wheel cars, where I had adjustments in the car, so I like the onboard adjustments. For me, on a pit stop, if we had to adjust the track bar there, that’s a couple of extra seconds. And if I didn’t like it, you’re stuck with it for 60 or 80 laps. Now, I can make it on the fly and if it doesn’t work, I can move it back for no harm, no foul.”

Allgaier is firing on all cylinders so well that he has also been deemed a ‘solid value’ in NASCAR’s fantasy leagues.

“That’s actually really cool,” Allgaier said. “I keep up with the fantasy sports from other sports but I’ve never been a NASCAR fantasy follower. I was amazed this year at how many fans come up and tell me that I’m on their fantasy team. Then you go to Twitter post-race and they are thanking me for their fantasy team finishes.

That’s just cool to see that is a part of what we’re doing. It’s pretty unbelievable and awesome at the same time.”

And of course, Allgaier being the family-focused driver that he is, credited his family for their support in helping him fire on all cylinders so far this season.

“When I started racing, I was five years old,” Allgaier said. “My parents were the reason that I was at the track. They were there every race and were my biggest cheerleaders, as well as my biggest critics. They were the people that put the effort to make sure that I could do this.

I look back now having my own child, I realize how much effort and resources they put into my racing. I look at my wife now and she has taken on the role of cheerleading and support. My parents, wife and daughter go to all the races. This sport is such a family sport, from the fans in the grandstands to the drivers on the track.”

“And there is nothing like that family support. To have that is pretty awesome.”

From a team that is riding the wave of momentum to the support of fans and family, Allgaier is counting on all of it as he heads this week to race at the short track of Martinsville.

“It’s been a decent track for me but it is a short track,” Allgaier said. “Anything can happen. I put Martinsville in the Daytona and Talladega category. Even when you’re having a great day, something can go wrong, whether another competitor, a tire, or clipping the curb. There are so many things that can change.”

“The part that is crazy is I know that we’re going to have tough races,” Allgaier continued. “It’s the mechanics of our sport. There is nobody that can get on a hot streak and stay on it forever. But I hope we can capitalize on the races we are good at and when we were are having a bad day, do the least amount of damage possible.”

“I’m excited and I don’t want this momentum to stop,” Allgaier said. “Our group of guys on the 51 have definitely been firing on all eight cylinders this year.”

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW MARY JO ON TWITTER: @maryjobuchanan

Categories
Trucks

John Hunter Nemechek Getting Schooled

With just two races into the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series season, 17-year-old @JHNemechek is getting schooled both on and off the track.

And while he might not enjoy learning atop the pit box while dad ‘Front Row’ Joe drove the No. 8 SWM-NEMCO Motorsports Chevrolet on the fast tracks of Daytona and Atlanta, he still is trying to make the most of those lessons before taking the wheel at the Truck race this weekend in Martinsville.

“This time off is killing me,” John Hunter said. “It stinks to be sitting up on the pit box watching dad run the truck when I can’t. But you learn a lot on the pit box. I’ve been helping our crew chief make some decisions to try to make our truck better. And when Dad’s complaining, I’ll give him my advice and we’ll talk about it on the pit box.

“It’s all a learning process about how and what changes end up with different results. So, if we’re loose, we’re going to do a spring or whatever it may be. I’m still learning quite a bit from being up there.”

John Hunter Nemechek has also continued his schooling while the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series has been on hiatus the past few weeks. In fact, he started taking two college courses after finishing an accelerated high school program.

“I actually graduated high school in December,” Nemechek said. “So, I got that out of the way. But my college has already started this week so I’m taking a couple of classes trying to get that moving.”

“I’m working on a mechanical engineering degree so I have to take some of the core classes for my first year in college. I need to get those credits out of the way. I have an English class and a calculus class. I like the calculus class more because I’m more of a math person than an English person.”

In addition to college, Nemechek has also been getting schooled back at the race shop, as well as keeping his skills sharp in his super late model race car.

“I’m at the shop working more and more, helping our guys put these trucks together. Just trying to be as helpful as I can,” Nemechek said. “I’m hands on working on the trucks, putting seats in, fabricating, using different softwares to draw different parts, pretty much anything you name it.”

“It’s fun and to be able to learn different tools of the trade is helpful. I hope I’m pretty handy and I’m not afraid to get dirty.

“I’ve also been doing some racing in this off-time. Our late model program has done very good and we won one race this year so far, even though we should have won three or four of them. I’ve run a few late model races, like the Rattler at South Alabama Speedway. I’m doing just hit and miss races when we’re off trying to keep my timing good.”

The young Nemechek also has been getting schooled with his new race team, including working with crew chief Gere Kennon.

“Our team, we made some major adjustments during the off season,” Nemechek said. “We have a great group of people. They work hard and are very dedicated. Anything that we need to do to win, they pretty much do.

“They are very much appreciated and I cannot say enough about them.”

Of course, John Hunter Nemechek has been getting schooled all of his life to be behind the wheel of a race truck and car, having started his career by his dad’s side at the tender age of five in quarter midgets.

Some of his career learning experiences have included becoming the youngest pole winner at the Milwaukee Mile in 2012 and winning the Miller Lite Super Late Model Series Championship in 2013. Fans really took notice of how well Nemechek was learning the sport when he won the Snowball Derby Super Late Model race at Five Flags Speedway later that December.

But what Nemechek most wants to learn is how it will feel to get back into the race truck next weekend, take the reins back from his father, and race again at Martinsville Speedway.

“I’ve been to Martinsville and it’s a really fun track,” Nemechek said. “We were in contention for the win in the fall last year so I feel we are getting better every time we are going there.

“It’s a short track and that’s what I grew up racing. It’s more of a strategy game because you have to be there at the end and have all the fenders on for sure. So, I really am looking forward to getting into the truck in Martinsville next week. And I hope we can put on a good show.”

At least one aspect of Nemechek’s schooling will be complete, however, when he turns 18 and can drive the Truck full-time.

“I turn 18 on June 11th so that will be a big deal,” he said. “We actually race that weekend so I’ll be racing every Truck race from Gateway on.”

In addition to that racing achievement, John Hunter Nemechek will soon complete one more aspect of his learning off the track. In May, he will walk in the graduation procession with his high school classmates and formally complete that aspect of getting schooled.

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW MARY JO ON TWITTER: @maryjobuchanan

Categories
Editorial

Blast from NASCAR’s Past: Scott Speed

Former NASCAR driver Scott Speed will take to the track this weekend in a brand new endeavor, racing in the Formula E Series in Miami.

Speed will be replacing Marco Andretti in the second seat for Team Andretti in the fifth race of the new FIA Formula E Series, the first fully-electric open-wheel racing series. This is the first time that Speed will be back in an open-wheel car after spending seven plus years racing in the Global Rally Cross Series.

“I really feel like the first day of high school,” @scottspeed said of his new gig. “It’s been a really cool experience so far just because I’ve gotten so many phone calls from my open wheel friends that I’ve lost touch with. I’ve kind of forgotten how many people I knew after seven years away from that circle.”

“This opportunity came about being a team driver at Andretti and having the success that we did when we tested overseas. To be honest, if things would have worked out, I’d have been in a car sooner but the way the schedule has played out, it has taken us this long to finally get a stab at it. Either way, I’m very much looking forward to it.”

“We got a great team so I expect it to be a really great weekend.”

Although Speed acknowledged that he is comfortable jumping back into an open wheel car, the electric aspect is one to which he will have to adapt.

“It’s an open wheel car so it’s different than what I’ve been driving the better half of this decade,” Speed said. “From doing the test, it’s pretty much like riding a bike so it should be a relatively quick learning curve to get back in it.”

“The cars are fully electric though. They make no engine noise whatsoever. So, driving is very weird. You actually hear the wind, which is quite interesting. You can even hear yourself kind of breathing. So, it is a really, really strange race car and I don’t think you ever get used to it.”

“There are a lot of things going on in the cockpit, not to the extent of Formula 1, but certainly there is more than an average car,” Speed continued. “There are so many battery related controls as well as you have a certain amount of battery or fuel in the car and you cannot refill it.”

“That’s what you’ve got and you have to make it back to pit road. And you have to use every drop. It’s one of those things where you cannot come into the pits with half a lap of battery remaining. Otherwise you’re leaving so much on the table.”

“So, it really becomes a management scenario, which will be very new for me and will be the biggest thing to learn.”

Another challenge for Speed is that there will not be much practice time to learn the car and the course before qualifying and the race.

“We get almost no practice time,” Speed said. “The schedule is two 40-minute practice sessions, then qualifying and then the race.”

“So, it will be a very steep learning curve, but with that said, it does make it exciting for me because I really have no pressure. No one is expecting me jumping in the car for four races to win the championship. So, it’s a good feeling anyway.”

While Speed may have a steep learning curve with the car and the course, which races through the streets of downtown Miami, his comfort comes from the crew chief and team with whom he will be racing.

“Andretti has a two-car team,” Speed said. “The car that runs all year is with a French driver Jean-Eric Vergne. My car is engineered by one of the people on staff at Andretti that I know well from doing IndyCar tests and from being at the shop.”

“I know a lot of the people so it is an easy transition from that standpoint. And it is fun because all the Global Rally Cross guys are all watching now. I’ve got a whole crew of them behind me feeling like they have a little skin in the game.”

While Speed is fully immersed in the new electric world, which will be a unique aspect for fans as well, he will not be giving up his day job in the Global Rally Cross Series.

“The hope is that this clean energy and sustainability emphasis in Formula E will resonate with the fans,” Speed said. “We have people like Virgin and Richard Branson and guys that are coming from other motorsports backgrounds that are into this sport, which is key.”

“It’s going to really broaden the depths of the sport, which is important for it to survive. Anything beyond that, I like to reserve myself as just a dumb race car driver that pushes the pedals and steers the wheel.”

“So, I’m not the big strategist on the marketing platform but it does seem to have a reach that is beyond the normal racing series from a fan standpoint.”

“Global Rally Cross with Volkswagen is still the primary gig,” Speed continued. “It’s still the main focus for me. And it’s still what I think is where the future of motor racing is going to go.”

Speed’s name has also come up related to the IndyCar Series, as well as his past relationship to stock cars in the world of NASCAR.

“I get asked almost on a weekly basis about IndyCar,” Speed said. “I don’t want to say no to anything because as a kid, I said I would never race NASCAR a million times, so I don’t like to say never. But it would be a very long shot for me to ever sit in an IndyCar on an oval.”

“It’s too dangerous and I really love my life, my wife and kids and we will leave it at that.”

“I do miss my stint at NASCAR,” Speed continued. “It was awesome and I met a lot of really cool people. I met my wife there.”

“But ultimately at heart, I am a California kid with open wheel blood. And you just cannot fake it. I do have a ton of friends but it is a different culture. Beyond that, there just was not the opportunity to get into a good car with an opportunity to win.”

“And so when you go to the race track every weekend and you know you’re not going to win, it wears on you. And I enjoy so much being with Andretti with their Global Rally Cross program and their Formula E program when I go to the track and I know that I have a shot to win.”

“That’s what fires me up and keeps me pushing. That’s extremely valuable for me I guess.”

While Speed has been juggling his many different racing responsibilities, it all comes down to the support of his family as far as his racing career. And he will keep that going as long as all of his children continue to be interested and able to tag along.

“My wife and girls love racing,” Speed said. “My wife grew up racing with her father and brother drag racing in NHRA. So, she is probably a bigger fan of motor racing than I am actually. She knows more about what is going on as far as what drivers are going where than I do.”

“Fortunately, they all love racing and love coming with me, so at the moment it is a really cool thing that we get to share.”

“For me, the family side of it is the most important. So, when my kids are old enough and they don’t want to go to the races anymore, than I’m pretty sure that’s when I sort of hang my helmet up and become the dad.”

And while his family and friends will be cheering him on this weekend, Speed is all about getting ready to race, getting plugged into his electric race car and taking the checkered flag in Formula E Miami.

“The biggest challenge is going to be just the learning curve of how these cars race,” Speed said. “I’m coming in five races behind and I’m sure the other drivers have learned so much about these cars that I have not.”

“So, it will be a steep learning curve to catch up.”

“I’m just looking forward most to seeing all the drivers and friends from open wheel that I haven’t seen for so long. I really look forward to socializing with a bunch of friends from the past and racing as fast as I can.”

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com
FOLLOW MARY JO ON TWITTER: @maryjobuchanan

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Blue Bunny Sweet on Johnson’s Helmet of Hope

While Blue Bunny Ice Cream has had a sweet run as the title sponsor on @JimmieJohnson’s Helmet of Hope raising money for K-12 education, the relationship between the six-time champ and Mike Wells, CEO, has hit a sweet spot as well.

“I started out as a casual observer of the sport back in the late ‘90s,” Wells, president and CEO of Wells Enterprises, maker of @Blue_Bunny, said. “I was a Dale Sr. fan and when the sport lost him, I was looking around for a driver and Jimmie Johnson came on the scene.”

“At that time, my son, who is about to turn 20, was just a little guy and saw this new guy who seemed like he was going to be good. We liked his sponsor because I like doing home improvement projects and that kind of stuff. We just loved the persona Jimmie had. And then he started winning and it became really easy to be a Jimmie fan. The more races we went to, the more we liked it and the environment.”

So how did an ice cream maker and avid NASCAR fan actually team up with his favorite driver, a six-time champion at that? It all apparently came down to a shared love of the sweet treat of ice cream.

“Back in 2009, in a Sports Illustrated article, Jimmie was interviewed and was asked what else he was passionate about,” Wells said. “And one of the things he talked about in that article was ice cream and how much he loved it and how someday he might even want to own an ice cream brand.

“He wanted his first flavor to be nuts and bolts. I read the article and a couple people approached me about it and we started to try to make a connection. One of my Vice Presidents, his brother at one time worked on a marketing team that worked with Jimmie. So, I made a few calls and got to Jimmie’s development director.”

“I told him that Jimmie was all things NASCAR and loves ice cream and I’m a guy that is all things ice cream and loves NASCAR. So, if the 48 team was interested, we invited them to come out and see what we do,” Wells continued.

“They did and we got introduced to Jimmie May of 2010 and actually brought him some products to mimic what he would consider to be nuts and bolts ice cream, which was full of peanut butter cups and goo. He loved the ice cream and he loved the story of our company, a hundred two year old family company sitting in a small community trying to make a difference.”

The Blue Bunny and Jimmie Johnson’s Helmet of Hope charitable partnership did take a bit of time to find their sweet spot. But when they did, the relationship blossomed and has continued to grow and evolve.

“We weren’t the initial title sponsor,” Wells said. “When we first got introduced to Jimmie back in 2010 and looked at the Helmet of Hope program, we thought it was really interesting. We thought it was a great way to garner interest from the consumer at large through a program that was more tangible than raising money for good causes.”

“When I first found out about it, I was very enthusiastic about the concept of engaging the public and using Jimmie Johnson’s appeal and asked for the opportunity to be the Helmet of Hope title sponsor if it ever became available. In 2011, it did. Two things for me, I love leveraging who Jimmie and Chandra are and the other thing is I’m such a NASCAR fanatic that the opportunity to get a helmet out of the deal was awesome.”

“We kicked it off in 2011 and initially it was twelve $10,000 grants,” Wells continued. “For six weeks every week, the fan base could nominate a charity of their choice and the media could nominate a charity of their choice. And as we garnered the results, Jimmie and Chandra would get them down to their top twelve.

“We changed that last year with a focus on K-12 education, realizing how behind the curve that funding was and how many kids were in need.”

“So, last year, we changed it up to do five $25,000 grants,” Wells continued. “We think that a $25,000 grant is of much more interest and more people will compete and it is a substantial amount of money that can really make a difference to those nonprofits that have an opportunity to win one.”

“Today’s format is those nominations are open to anybody who wants to nominate,” Well said. “I think initially when the Helmet of Hope was set up through previous sponsorships, it really was more the NASCAR fan base and the media having an opportunity to bring that forward. I think today one of the things that I enjoy about the way this has changed is that it really has a broader appeal.

“While there is a tremendously loyal NASCAR fan base that is going to be focused on this, I can’t tell you the number of people that I run into that have found out about it outside of NASCAR. Anybody with a not for profit that supports K-12 education can apply for a grant today. Last year, we had upwards of 4,000 applications come in.”

While the Helmet of Hope has contributed more than $685,000 to 76 different charities supporting education, both Blue Bunny and Jimmie Johnson have found their own sweet spots through the program as well.

“I don’t put it in dollars and cents,” Wells said. “I can quote you the numbers but the reality for us is that it’s about creating awareness for our brand. The fact that associating our brand with a successful individual like Jimmie Johnson with his star appeal allows us to use his persona as a way to gain additional exposure for our company.

“But conversely, Jimmie would say that it works the other way as well with his association with Blue Bunny creating more awareness for him as a driver and for the sport of NASCAR. It really is that ultimate win-win for us and for him I think.”

“I’ve never tried to go after big sponsorships,” he said. “We love the opportunity to be behind the scenes, get some attention once in a while, and put our money to work in a way that supports the charities we care about. We bring ice cream to every event that we can latch onto and it gets exposure for our company. And everyone has fun because it turns into an ice cream party.”

One of the sweetest aspects of being the Helmet of Hope title sponsor is being able to not only share ice cream but present the check to the deserving awardees.

“What has touched me most is the thankfulness of people,” Wells said. “They realize the funds could have gone to anybody but they know that will make such a difference.

“The kids love the fact that it is about ice cream and that Jimmie Johnson showed up. I love the excitement. You can’t go to those events and not feel the enthusiasm and the gratitude as well.”

Wells is understandably proud of his partnership with Jimmie and Chandra Johnson through the Helmet of Hope program. But the relationship goes so much deeper than that.

“The Helmet of Hope is such a direct extension of our values,” Wells said. “Jimmie and the team are first class and use their success to help others help themselves. For me, it was my willingness to take the risk and pick up the phone that has turned into this opportunity and friendship. To give back in this way is really humbling and rewarding.

“Back in 2012, Jimmie had a Foundation event in California and a parent of a child that started a foundation to help kids with cancer approached me in tears. She said that receiving that funding was great but the exposure meant even more. She shared that her child had passed away from the cancer but that the legacy would go on for a long time because of the grant. That is a real way in which our willingness to help made a significant difference.”

“Probably the most humbling thing for me to know is that I picked up the phone and took the risk,” Wells continued. “Ultimately there are ice cream companies that are bigger than we are, more well-funded than we are and with a higher profile, but Jimmie chose us to partner with.”

“For me, this is an extension of my love for the sport,” Wells said. “Everybody at Blue Bunny knows that we are doing good things but also that this really is in my sweet spot in regards to my love for NASCAR.”

For more information about the Helmet of Hope or to nominate a charity, visit www.helmetofhope.org. Nominations are being accepted through April 1st.

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW MARY JO ON TWITTER: @maryjobuchanan

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Jeff Gordon Scores as NASCAR’s Madonna

According to Repucom, a global sports marketing consultancy, @JeffGordonWeb may just be the Madonna of NASCAR based on his marketability, consistency and likability metrics.

“What we do is ask fans about their levels of appeal, who is their favorite driver, if they can associate the partnership with driver and does that connect in the consumer’s heads,” Peter Laatz, Executive Vice President, Repucom, told POPULAR SPEED. “In terms of the marketability, we look at several factors, one of which is awareness. One of the things we see in NASCAR is that some of the most successful drivers have a very low awareness in the general market. In fact, an important metric to note is that Jeff Gordon has a 30% higher awareness rating than @JimmieJohnson, who is a six-time champion.

“Awareness drives a lot of the downstream metrics around likability, appeal, endorsement, and those kind of things are predicated on heavy, heavy awareness and being out there. That’s the point we made, that Jeff Gordon is obviously a talented driver and race car driver and a very good spokesperson for any brand.”

“But there are two factors that drive Gordon’s metrics up over the other guys,” Laatz continued. “The first part is just consistency. Jeff Gordon is always consistent in running well and running up front and being in contention.”

“So, there is consistency in performance that we see in him and then the second thing that is really important is that there is a consistency in his behavior. He is a pro and he has class. That resonates with people and, while you can see spikes in likability for other drivers, Jeff Gordon has always been a copper wire in the NASCAR world.

“Jeff has consistency and in fact goes back to the days of competing with Dale Sr. He’s kind of like the Madonna of NASCAR because he has maintained his relevance over the years. It’s really pretty impressive.”

To determine where drivers like Jeff Gordon score not just in NASCAR but in the world of celebrity overall, Repucom utilizes eight attributes to determine what they call Celebrity DBI. These attributes include awareness, appeal, aspiration, breakthrough, endorsement, influence, trendsetter and trust.

We take a look at 5,000 total celebrities,” Laatz said. “The way it works is that we ask fans and consumers on a weekly basis their perceptions about different categories of celebrities, from Taylor Swift all the way through to Oprah Winfrey and Jeff Gordon.

“We then segment those by looking at the top ten NASCAR drivers, pop singers, and sometimes we jumble the lists all together. The most important factor we use is awareness but then there are seven other attributes that we ask people about. The second one is appeal, how much do you like or dislike this person. The next one is how much do you aspire to be like that person.”

“There is one called break-through, which is the person’s ability to break through all the clutter and noise that is out there. There is that person’s endorsement ability, which is important as well as how influential they are.

“Another is if they are a trendsetter and one that has become very important in the last couple of years is trust. A lot of the off-track or off-field things that have happened have caused these trust factors to falter because these people’s lives have become so public with viral social media. That is really affecting even the highest of the leagues, from the NFL to NASCAR, and impacts keeping sponsorships.”

“This is not the be-all, end-all index,” Laatz continued. “All it really does is give us context. It gives us context as to how people are ranked and whether they are up or down from the last time they were tested. Generally, you can see incidents in the real world happening and someone’s metrics will either go up or down.

“For Jeff Gordon, there were four guys deemed to be the top match,” Laatz said. “Interestingly three of the four of them have all witnessed a sort of life after the field or the sport kind of thing. So, Jeff scores comparably to Dan Marino, Emmitt Smith, Evander Holyfield and Yao Ming. Those four personalities were all matched as far as consistency, long-standing careers, successful, grounded and life after retirement.

“It’s interesting to see Jeff’s profile match up that way.”

According to Repucom’s metrics, Gordon’s visibility and marketability has also played out in the world of sponsorship. In fact, Repucom research shows that Gordon ranked first among all NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers in time on screen in 2014 with over 24 hours as well as generating more than one billion online impressions.

“We run out a couple of different studies that are syndicated and we use that data to drive insights and help our clients in a commercial sense, marketability, sponsor value, return on investment, that sort of thing,” Laatz said .”Anything from load of exposure on the hood of Jeff Gordon’s car all the way through to people’s opinions of him and how aware they are of him as a celebrity are analyzed.

“Ultimately, what it starts with is the visibility he brings to his partners and in Jeff Gordon’s case that is Axalta, formerly Dupont. While he’s had other partnerships and sponsors along the way, the closest association that people will make is that company and he’s just been appointed a global business advisor for the company.

“As soon as Jeff steps out of the race car, his relevance and experience that they had with him over the course of twenty years will just continue.”

While Gordon’s awareness is at an all-time high, particularly as he starts the final season of his career on track, he is one of just a few NASCAR drivers that move the needle on awareness and recognizability by the general public. And obviously, according to Repucom, that is something NASCAR is aware of and working diligently to change.

“The interesting part about the NASCAR data base that we run is that the awareness levels are so low that it hampers their overall scores as a total,” Laatz said. “There are only a few drivers that sit above the 50% awareness level, which are @DaleJr., @DanicaPatrick and Jeff Gordon.

“Once you get past those three, the awareness of the other NASCAR drivers in the general market goes off a cliff. What happens is that hurts their overall ranking. From a sponsorship standpoint, the whole idea is to connect yourself with someone that people will know who the heck they are. It shouldn’t be a brand’s job to drive Jimmie Johnson’s awareness. That’s Jimmie Johnson’s job.”

“I do think the sport has a number of initiatives and one of those is driver star power, which is focusing on marketing these drivers a little bit better and to cross promote their drivers in other types of media,” Laatz continued. “That’s really important because they need to be recognized if they get on a commercial airplane. That’s a problem for some of the more niche motorsports so it’s not as big of a problem in NASCAR.

“But there is probably only five drivers that would have that plane recognizability factor if you will, probably Dale Jr., Danica, Jeff Gordon, @TonyStewart and maybe Carl Edwards.”

While Jeff Gordon does not have to worry about being recognized, there is one of the most important metrics that may determine his future success when he leaves the seat and heads off the track.

“Jeff Gordon’s skills as an ambassador are surpassed only by his racing accomplishments,” Laatz concluded. “From Saturday night racing under the lights to Saturday Night Live, the four-time Sprint Cup Champion has provided a tremendous amount of exposure for NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, sponsors and charitable causes.”

“Jeff Gordon truly is among the most marketable celebrities in sports.”

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW MARY JO ON TWITTER: @maryjobuchanan

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Pearn Building Bigger, Better Weapon for Truex

Cole Pearn, new crew chief for Furniture Row Racing’s @MartinTruex_Jr., may seem laid back and even a bit soft-spoken but the mechanical engineer from Canada is absolutely driven to bring a bigger and better weapon to the race track every week for his driver.

And that mentality is most certainly paying off, with two top-ten finishes for team 78, as well as being the highest ever in the points standings in the ten-year history of Furniture Row Racing.

“Racing is essentially an arms race and you have to build a bigger and better weapon every week to bring to the race track,” @colepearn told POPULAR SPEED. “It’s just been a struggle and a whole lot of things have had to come together.”

Pearn acknowledged that much of the team’s current success has been borne out of the battles that the team fought last year, with only four top-ten finishes, ending the season 24th in the point standings.

“As bad as 2014 was, it got us struck down to the core,” Pearn said. “We were able to address some issues that we needed to do as a team. When you’re down, you all look at each other and it brought all of us together. It has bred positive results and we’re now moving in step with each other as a team going forward.”

“I think that has made the biggest difference; that we’re all on the same page from when we struck rock bottom to where we are today. I think that will continue to grow as we move on through the season.”

Pearn described his management style as similar to a general going into battle with his troops.

“It just comes down to someone pulling a very different group of people to all mesh together,” Pearn said “I feel like through luck or just opportunity, we have all come together and we have the same bond. You have to push through those barriers and look at things the same way. That just makes you all that much better and keeps you moving on down the road together.”

“You have to micromanage the things that need to be micromanaged and delegate when it’s warranted. You want to put a group of overachievers together and make sure they have what they need to do their job. That’s the most important thing that I can do.”

Pearn admitted that some of the other elements that have made his role as crew chief for Truex Jr. successful have been good communication, their shared background from racing families, and how they have both worked their way up through the ranks of NASCAR.

“Our communication is pretty good honestly,” Pearn said. “We’ve hit it off really well. It’s pretty relaxed. Us Canadians are easy to get along with, so that’s why. Our lead race engineer is from New Jersey so he and Truex Jr., who is also from Jersey, have hit it off really well.”

“So, it’s just a good environment from that standpoint.”

“I think that’s a huge thing that we are also both from racing families,” Pearn continued. “Adding to that, Martin is of the mindset that we’re never good enough until we are winning and we need to be better.”

“That’s my same mindset as well as all the guys on the team. When you get that same view in play and neither of us are totally content with what we’ve got, I feel positive about that for sure.”

“Another thing that has helped me is coming up the ranks and having the chance to work with Todd Berrier,” Pearn said. “I wouldn’t be where I’m at now if it wasn’t for him. He instilled a lot of good things and good qualities in me.”

“The biggest thing he taught me is to never settle and if it wasn’t how I wanted it to be that I had to make it how I wanted it to be. So, that mindset has been a good motivation for me.”

Pearn also acknowledged that some of the most successful battles to date have been as a result not only of his knowledge as a past driver and his engineering background but also the new rules package, which is right in his driver’s wheelhouse.

“I’m a hybrid of both driver and engineer,” Pearn said. “You rely on the driving side so when Martin’s describing something from the seat, you have a better idea of where it is and what he is struggling with.”

“And then the flip side of that is that you use engineering to address and analyze how you will fix that spot. That’s my mindset on it and it seems to have been going well for me trying to use that approach.”

“Some of Martin’s better years have been a similar aero balance to what we have now,” Pearn continued. “So, that has given us good confidence, especially after testing a little bit at the end of last year.”

“I felt like this was going to suit him well. At the same time, we as a company were coming around at the end of last year, which was the biggest benefit of having the off-season when we do.”

“We just needed the time to get everything fixed and in place and we were able to do that.”

While Pearn enjoys the battles on the track, off the track he finds R&R on the ski slopes, as well as spending time with his young children, a son aged two and his seven month old daughter.

“I’m probably a little not typical,” Pearn said. “I love racing but I love the outdoors. I love to ski and I love to hike. That’s where you’ll catch me on a day off, which is different from the East coast mentality.”

“I like skiing in the back country as much as possible,” Pearn continued. “We do resort skiing with my two year old son since he is just starting to ski. We’ll go to Vail or a few others locally but my favorite place to ski is in British Colombia. All off season, every chance I get, I’ll be off to BC.”

For this weekend, however, Pearn will again go back to the battle, this time at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, with his driver and his No.78 Furniture Row Racing Chevrolet team.

“We will just continue to push forward,” Pearn said. “We had a good plan coming into this season. We’re getting a little bit of confirmation that we’re working on the right things and we’ll continue to work in that direction and evolve.”

“So, hopefully we can continue to be a force.”

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW MARY JO ON TWITTER: @maryjobuchanan

Categories
Editorial

3M ESPE Banking on Jeff Gordon’s Smile Giving Kids a Smile

While Jeff Gordon was still smiling after his final Daytona 500 in spite of his 33rd place finish, 3M ESPE is banking on that smile to continue as @JeffGordonWeb supports the Give Kids a Smile program off the track throughout his final season of his full-time race career.

“The Give Kids a Smile Program is run by the American Dental Association Foundation and 3M ESPE is one of the sponsors of that,” Jodi L. Case, Industry Relations Specialist for 3M ESPE Dental Products, said. “The program began in 2003 as a way for dentists to join together to provide dental services to underserved children.

“Dentists and other team members volunteer their time, and services, to provide screenings, treatment and education to children throughout the United States. Each year, approximately 350,000 children benefit from more than 1,500 events, all because of the efforts of 40,000 or more annual volunteers.”

“Our portion of the sponsorship, in addition to the monetary sponsorship, is running and coordinating with them our affiliation with NASCAR and Jeff Gordon,” Case said. “We’re using that platform to take oral care education to schools all over the country.”

“Typically, we will target a Title I school in each race market and do an education program a few days before the race. We will talk about why oral care is important, why you should brush your teeth twice a day, what are healthy snacks for kids and flossing.”

“We are targeting five cities across the country, with the first in April, and then we have Indianapolis, Charlotte, and Talladega to name a few. We will be working in areas that don’t have that education to oral health care or that access to care.”

“One of the programs that the American Dental Association and 3M ESPE and the American Association of Pediatric Dentistry is to also supply and find dental homes for the children that we educate. They will be provided oral care, cleaning, sealants and restorative work they need for a year. It’s pretty great.”

Case admits that while the new relationship with one of NASCAR’s premier drivers in Jeff Gordon has been exciting, it has also been taken to a whole new level with the driver’s announcement that he will be stepping out of the seat of his No. 24 race car by year’s end.

“This has been quite crazy,” Case said. “I’m not sure how much 3M corporate knew about Gordon’s announcement that this would be his last year, but it has been great as far as the attention on him and on the sport. Our partnership with Jeff fits with all of his children’s charities and children’s healthcare. It just fits in perfectly for that platform.”

Case, whose experience has primarily been working with the charitable side of the company as well as dental education, has had to come up to speed quickly as far as the world of NASCAR with this new relationship.

“This is a whole new world for me,” Case said. “I have been at 3M for 24 years and in the dental business for nearly 16 years. So, my role at 3M is Industry Relations Specialist. I work with our charitable foundation, including Give Kids a Smile, providing products and donations for mission trips, and free dental clinics. The other half of my job is working with industry organizations on continuing education for dentists.”

“NASCAR is pretty amazing. Four years ago, my boss at the time had this vision to bring awareness to the Give Kids a Smile Program and he thought, what better way to do that than through NASCAR as the number one spectator sport in the country.”

“And because 3M at the time had a relationship with Greg Biffle, we had a very easy tie in to that market,” Case continued. “So, we decided to participate in 3M’s at track displays, which at that time were at eleven tracks. They had a big tent, DJs and one was a dental tent where we handed out free toothbrushes that were donated and oral care tip cards. We tried to talk to the parents about why it was important to care for their children’s teeth and that dental caries was the number one reason for children missing school.”

“We also educated parents that their kids really need to have a dental home by the age of one. They may not have a lot of teeth yet but it’s important to have the dentist look and make sure that their mouths are forming correctly and that the teeth are coming in properly. We also want to get them comfortable in that dental chair so that when they are three or four, they aren’t terrified to go to the dentist.”

In addition to Jeff Gordon, another NASCAR star is also involved in giving kids a reason to smile according to Case.

“NASCAR has been a really good place for us to talk to kids and parents about how oral care can affect their overall health. And that’s how this program was born and then we started doing some education programs at the schools.”

“We have an hour program at the schools and Wendy Venturini (PRN and Fox Sports 1 broadcaster) is our MC for those programs and she really does an amazing job. She ties in her role as a mom and that she is living it every day and she can relate to how the kids are feeling. She has been a great asset to the team. She has been with us for the last two years and she is scheduled to do all of our programs this year as well.”

“Some people ask us why 3M ESPE would be involved in the NASCAR market at all because there are really no consumer products that race fans can buy but our philosophy comes from Henry Schein, who always says ‘When you do good, you do well.’

“And that has been part of our philosophy as well. We’re out there trying to make a difference and this is one way we can reach a lot of people. This really can help us make a different in a kid’s life, whether that is getting someone to the dentist that has never been or maybe showing some kids that there is a different career out there that they never thought of. We’re just trying to make an impact and help kids understand that they can do more than they ever thought in their own communities.”

New driver spokesperson Jeff Gordon echoed Case’s philosophy completely as he shared his thoughts on involvement in the 2015 Give Kids a Mile program.

“This season, our No. 24 3M Chevy SS team is excited to partner with 3M ESPE Dental Products and the American Dental Association Foundation’s Give Kids A Smile program to help drive smiles and good dental health for children in need,” Gordon said. “When you look at the life-long impact that poor dental health can have on a young child, you see how important it is to help underserved kids learn good dental health practices. It makes an incredible difference in their ability to learn, to eat nutritiously and have good self-esteem.”

“With good brushing and daily flossing, a smart diet and regular visits to the dentist, all kids can achieve good dental health. It’s all about brushing twice a day for two minutes.”

“If we can sends kids home from an education event with that message, along with some tips to share with their family members, a great toothbrush, toothpaste and dental floss, we can get them on the right track for a terrific smile.”

“Working with someone like Jeff Gordon to bring the vital message of the importance of good oral care to hundreds of thousands of race fans is an exciting opportunity,” John Tobin, direction, U.S. Business Unit, 3M ESPE Dental, said. “And, we are excited to extend this education program throughout the entire dental community to reach millions more parents and caregivers.”

“We are so proud to partner with the NASCAR community and other industry leaders to address this critical issue and drive smiles for children in need.”

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW MARY JO ON TWITTER: @maryjobuchanan

Categories
NASCAR Cup Series

Agendas Abound As NASCAR Drivers Approach Daytona 500

With 43 drivers hoping to take their place in the field for the 57th running of NASCAR’s biggest race, various agendas abound, from drivers who are taking the Daytona 500 stage for the first time to one driver who will have his final 500 hurrah.

And in between, there are other agendas as well, from following in a winner’s footsteps to hoping to be that hometown hero to perhaps a little bit of rivalry that may play out on the high banks during the Great American race.

For one young driver, his agenda will simply be to make the race after getting a ride at the last minute with BK Racing. @JebBurtonRacing, son of Daytona 500 champ Ward Burton, will jump aboard the No. 26 Toyota Camry and attempt to make his first ever Daytona 500 race.

“I am so thankful for the opportunity that BK Racing has given me,” Burton said. “It has been a dream of mine to race in the Daytona 500 ever since I was 9 years old and I stood with my Dad in victory lane. I remember thinking to myself then in 2002, I would like to win the 500 one day.”

“Now I have a chance at making that dream come true.”

On the other end of the spectrum, four-time champion Jeff Gordon’s agenda includes leading his competitors to the green flag in the final Daytona 500 of his stellar career.

“This is one of the more gratifying poles here at Daytona that I’ve ever had, not just because it’s my final Daytona 500, but because you’ve got to try and plan it out and play that chess match and play it really, really well,” @JeffGordonWeb said. “I can’t think of anything cooler than to start this season, the Daytona 500, my final Daytona 500, final full season, on the pole.

“That feels good.”

Another Daytona 500 agenda is to follow in the footsteps of a former teammate who claimed the biggest win of his life. Ryan Blaney, behind the wheel of the famed Wood Brothers No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford, can only hope to fulfill the agenda set by Trevor Bayne when he won in that historic car.

“Just to be racing in Sprint Cup means a lot to me and my family and to be able to get to know the Wood Brothers and everyone is really special to me,” @Blaney said. “We are really fortunate to be where we are at and really excited to be down here and attempting to make the 500.

“I think we have as good a shot as anybody to win it. We have great race cars and they are really fast. Trust me, the Wood Brothers haven’t let me forget that. They always bring it up and say that Trevor’s second start for them was the 500. We are going to try our best and have the people to do it. Hopefully it falls our way.”

For one driver who came so close to a Daytona 500 win, the only agenda is proving that he and his team have made it, outgrowing the ‘little team that could’ moniker.

“I think we will have a good shot to win if we can play our cards and strategy right and have a little luck,” David Ragan, driver of the No. 34 CSX Ford for Front Row Motorsports, said. “Daytona and Talladega are the most equal races you have because the draft is so important. Absolutely it is an equalizer that no doubt Jimmie Johnson’s car or team is stronger than what Front Row Motorsports can bring to the track because of their resources and the economics of our sport but when we unload at Daytona, I can’t describe to you how good I feel compared to what Jimmie Johnson feels or what Tony Stewart is going to feel because we have as good as shot to win as they do.”

“So that is a great feeling coming to Daytona and knowing that the guys sitting right there next to you is a five or six time champion but we have as good as shot to win the Daytona 500 as he can.”

“I think slowly we are outgrowing the ‘little team that could’ role,” @DavidRagan continued. “That win two years ago at Talladega was a big step in the right direction. We are closing that gap but there is still so much to be done and that is what motivates us. We feel we are getting closer.”

“Hendrick Motorsports wasn’t created overnight. It was 25 years in the making and I think over the next several years and probably long after I am gone from this sport Front Row Motorsports has the potential to be a big player down the road.”

Another Daytona 500 agenda is to become a hometown hero and that is exactly what Aric Almirola intends to do as he takes to the fast, high-banked track in his Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Smithfield Ford.

“Winning at Daytona is special for anybody, but winning at Daytona, for me, is really special because I grew up here,” @aric_almirola said. “I grew up sitting in those grandstands and dreaming about what it would be like to have a chance to race here, so to actually get a chance to race a Cup car here and win is unbelievable and very special.”

“We come to Daytona this year with a lot of excitement. We’re the last ones to win here in the Cup Series, so we’re excited about the Daytona 500 and it would be really awesome to get a Daytona 500 win to add to that Coke Zero 400 win.”

The final agenda that seems to be playing out based on the events that occurred during the Sprint Unlimited is the possible Daytona 500 showdown between reigning champ Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano. The two tussled on track and then had words off track after the no-points race as well.

“Logano just drove us straight in the fence,” @KevinHarvick    said. “Everybody is trying to be aggressive, but you still have to know when and where you can do things. You can’t just drive somebody in the fence. Whether it is an all-star race or not, it doesn’t really matter, you can’t just take your head off and throw it on the floorboard and not use your brain.”

“He’s just Kevin,” @joeylogano said in response. “He’s an instigator, right? It’s the same thing he is every other time he talks to someone. It’s the same old crap. It just happens all the time. No big deal. It’s whatever.”

Whatever the agenda, there is no doubt that every driver’s agenda, whether it is their first or last Daytona 500, includes trying to score the Harley J. Earl trophy that signifies winning the first and biggest race of the NASCAR season.

“Right now it’s all about the Daytona 500,” Jeff Gordon said, summing up no doubt what all drivers feel. “All I want to focus on is winning the Daytona 500. I’m just enjoying the ride, enjoying the moment.”

“But, boy, if you can win it, what a storybook type of beginning to the season it would be.”

EMAIL MARY JO AT mj.buchanan@popularspeed.com

FOLLOW MARY JO ON TWITTER: @maryjobuchanan